Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm a Marathoner

If someone would have told me in the spring of 2010 that I would run a marathon before my 40th birthday, I would have had them checked by the nearest psychiatrist. I was not a runner and had no desire to become one.

However, looking to improve my physical well being, I started on a running journey a little over a year ago that has really changed my life and led me to the starting line of the 32nd annual Nationwide Columbus Marathon on October 16, 2011 - less than a month before I will turn 40.

My journey to get to the starting line had its ups and downs and I went from hoping to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time (BQ) of 3:15 to fears of not even being able to finish the race due to injuries. With all of those emotions weighing on me and about four hours of sleep to my credit, I made my way into Corral B with one of the other members of the Mount Vernon Running Buddies, Donald Cobb, with about 10 minutes to spare on race day after needing all the extra time we had allotted for traffic just to get to our parking lot. (Folks, when the race director tells you to get to the race by 6 a.m., he is not joking!)

The plan going into the race was to run with the 3:25 pace group (7:49 per mile) for as long as we could. Both Donald and I had posted half marathon PRs this year in 1:34 with Donald's coming when he recently won the Millersburg half on his 39th birthday and mine coming in the Cap City half back in May when I was really at the peak of my training as it turned out.

On a perfect morning for a race with temperatures hovering right around 50 degrees at the start, I stole a minute right before the race started to just quietly soak everything in and got a little choked up in the process as the magnitude of what I was about to do hit me. I gave Donald a fist bump and said "we've got this" and then the gun and fireworks went off at 7:30 a.m. and we were under way. It took us nearly a minute to get across the start line as the sea of people surged forward. We were in the very back of Corral B and the plan was to slowly work our way to be right with the 3:25 group which was on the opposite side and slightly in front of us while we waited to start.

The first mile came and went in an easy 7:51. A year ago when we ran the half together we started out way too fast (at least I did) and used up a lot of energy trying to weave through people and get out in the open a little bit. We had learned our lesson and definitely did not duplicate that error this time around.

By the end of mile #2, we had settled in at the back of the pace group after doing a 7:35. The next three miles ticked off like clockwork (7:37, 7:36, 7:38) as we realized by mile #5 that the pace group was just slightly ahead of pace, but we were ok with that.

Between mile #5 and mile #6, Donald convinced me that we wanted to run just ahead of the pace group so that the water stops were not so congested. I was ok with that because I knew that somewhere around mile #8 I would need to be looking for my wife and it would be a little easier to spot her if I was out in the open.

So, we picked up the pace and did a 7:22 to mile #6. The first post from @TweetMyTime came out and said that "I passed 10K with a time of 47:28. On a 7:39 pace toward a 3:20:16 finish". Great! Way ahead of the goal, but not feeling like I went out too fast at all.

Miles #7 and #8 were perfect at 7:41 and 7:42. I was drinking water at every water stop after the first one and I had taken a Gu gel about 35 minutes into the race. I was feeling pretty good. We were at 1:01 after the first eight miles of the race.

I caught a second wind during mile #9 thanks to some crowd support and posted a 7:26 and was feeling good.  We wound our way around mile #10 (7:37) and mile #11 (7:45) and started up the nearly four-mile stretch of High Street that I was dreading after last year's half marathon. See, as I said before, I started out way too fast a year ago and ended up telling Donald to leave me around the 10K mark as I felt like I didn't have anything left. High Street had seemed like I was climbing Mount Everest.

However, this time around, my training kicked in. I had purposely found hills to run up whenever possible. Even these last three weeks leading up to the marathon when I was only running the long runs on the weekends due to injuries, I still found some good inclines for me and the rest of the group to run with this particular stretch of the road in mind the whole time.

Mile #12 came and went in 7:50 as our pace didn't change much at all. The growing crowd as we approached mile #13 pushed us to a 7:39 pace as the half marathoners veered to the left and finished their race. "Don't look over there," I told Donald as I forced myself not to look down to where the finish line would be. "We don't want to see that yet. You know...kind of like seeing the bride before the wedding."

So, we pushed on as we both entered uncharted territory for a race distance. @TweetMyTime posted this as we passed the 13.1-mile mark "I'm halfway there with a time of 1:40:51 at a 7:42 pace toward a 3:21:41 finish!" Wow, we were still a little over three minutes ahead of our goal!

We reached mile #14 in 7:54. I had purchased that mile marker in honor of my grandma, Olive Mahaffey, who has inspired me with her comeback from a broken leg earlier this year and so this was a significant moment for me.  I had purposely chosen that mile to help power me past the half marathon turnoff.

We were still ahead of the 3:25 pace group for mile #15 (7:53), mile #16 (8:06), and mile #17 (7:59). Somewhere during that span, Donald started to struggle just a little and we slowed slightly to see if he could work his way through it. I was still feeling pretty good, but I knew that miles 17-19 were the toughest on the course according to race director Darris Blackford.

Donald began to perk up and he commented that the 3:25 pace group was starting to catch us. We did mile #18 in 8:19 and then they passed us before we got to mile #19. It was during this stretch that I really started to feel sick to my stomach. I'm not sure what caused it, but my best guess is that it could have been the Gatorade on the course as I started to drink it around mile #15 instead of using the G1 pouch I had in my pocket, which is what I was used to doing on long training runs or races.

Anyway, by mile #19, I had slowed to an 8:40 pace for the mile. I told Donald that I was probably going to need to stop and walk to see if I could get the issue to pass. He told me that he was worried that if he walked that his legs would cramp up and that he would be done. I totally understood and told him to go on his way. I tried to keep running slowly, but definitely got some walking in as I did a 10:41 pace to mile #20. Even still, @TweetMyTime sent out this message "20 miles in with a time of 2:39:40. On a 7:59 pace toward a 3:29:19 finish!"

The next five miles were really rough from a time standpoint, but honestly were some of the most fun miles of the race for me. I had promised myself that I would do whatever I needed to do in order to enjoy the race. That meant high-fiving kids, thanking spectators and volunteers, and encouraging other runners. Well, starting with mile #21, the encouraging other runners part is what got me through. I would look for someone who was kind of in the same shape as me and get alongside them and just encourage them to keep moving with me. Sometimes we would run for short stretches and more times we would walk and talk. Mile #21 took 11:22 and mile #22 took 10:59.

I did notice, though, that it was getting harder and harder to do much running because my calves were cramping up really bad. With my stomach hurting and very empty, I was fearful of drinking any more Gaorade or eating another gel. I began to look for possible food from the spectators or restaurants along the route. With no money, I was needing some kind soul to help me out.

As we approached what I think was the 19th water stop on the course at roughly 22.75 on my Garmin, I saw what to me was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. A box of donuts!!! I asked the guy at the water stop if they were fair game. He looked at me like I was out of my mind, but responded "Yeah, sure." I quickly opened the lid and much to my delight saw a fresh glazed blueberry cake donut. I grabbed it and continued walking while I ate it. It was AMAZING!!! The runner I was walking with at that point grabbed one, too, and we enjoyed them while runners started laughing as they passed two guys eating donuts while running a marathon. (It would be entertaining to see if that scene made it into someone else's blog.) Remember, though, my running mantra is "I run to eat!" :)

Despite the new-found energy from the donut, my cramped up legs limited me to a 13:02 for mile #23, an 11:32 for mile #24, and a 13:20 for mile #25. I kept telling myself that I wanted to save what energy and strength I had in my legs to try to run the final mile.

That plan worked pretty well as I did mile #26 in 9:47 and then finished the final two-tenths to the finish line at an 8:43 pace.

I ventured on down to the finish line and crossed with my hands in the air. I had done it! I was a marathoner!!! My final time was 3:52:04 or an 8:52 pace for the 26.2-mile race. I know a lot of people probably thought I would be frustrated with that time after doing so well for two-thirds of the race, but I had just as much fun in a different way over the final third. I made sure to soak up the entire experience and part of that is the fact that a marathon isn't easy. If it was, then everyone would do them. Just weeks before I was worried that I might not even be able to finish due to injuries. Other than the normal soreness associated with a run of that distance and a queasy stomach, I was fine. I ended up 1,463rd out of 4,740 marathon finishers (which made the race the largest marathon in the state). I was 1,116th out of 2,852 men in the field overall and 171st out of 434 men in my age group (35-39). And, by the time that we left after taking advantage of a free post-race massage, I was ready to take advantage of the buy one, get one free Chipotle coupon on my race bib!

There are so many people to thank for making this not only possible, but so much fun, too. My family has been so supportive. The girls had the sign below waiting for me when I got to Grandma's house to pick them up. My Mount Running Buddies Donald, Teri Pokosh, Chad Sims, and George Hartz, who each ran the race with me and the other members who have trained with us all year. Plus, other Mount Vernon folks who were there to cheer on their friends and family and the Run DMC crew who also did a great job running the race, volunteering at water stops, and cheering others on. And honestly, there was nothing quite like getting home later in the afternoon and having over 150 texts/e-mails/tweets/Facebook messages/Daily Mile comments to read through. I was floored and definitely got emotional reading through them. You guys are the best!!!

One final group of thank yous. Darris Blackford and the entire crew of the Columbus Marathon do an amazing job with this race. If you haven't run it, you need to. If you can't run it due to physical limitations, you need to come out and just watch it. I guarantee that it will move you as a spectator. Thanks also to Heather Whaling for the great interaction through the Columbus Marathon Facebook account and the @CbusMarathon Twitter account. And finally, a big shoutout to @TweetMyTime because they helped thousands of people follow this race live. I can't wait to come back next fall and do this all over again. I hope you'll join me there in one way or another.

I'm a Marathoner - The Back Story

One year ago, I ran my first half marathon as part of the Nationwide Columbus Marathon & Half Marathon Field. Yesterday, I completed a year-long journey of ups and downs and had a blast doing my first full marathon as part of the biggest field in the state of Ohio to complete a marathon as I once again ran the Columbus course, but this time the 26.2-mile version. Here's the back story that got me to the starting line.

I remember first thinking about the marathon after last year's race. Honestly, it wasn't the mileage that frightened me. I just could not get over wondering what in the world I would do to keep from getting bored while running for roughly four hours. I also knew that the training would be much more time-consuming with double the mileage.

On January 1st, I started the year off on the right foot by running the First on the First 5K ace in Westerville. That started a string of 40 straight days to start the year of at least five miles per day all outside regardless of how brutal the weather was.

I kept on training hard with my local group of friends, the Mount Vernon Running Buddies. I knocked out two spring half marathons, the Kenyon Earth Day half and the Capital City half, along with the Run Cbus 10-miler and kept lowering my times at each of them. I was starting to really get geared up about a possible run at a BQ in Columbus in the fall. I even did a 26.2-mile training run in 3:36 on May 28th just to see what the distance would feel like. After that, I officially signed up for the Columbus Marathon and the goal was in place as I put myself down for a 3:15 finish.

I did several more short races as the summer months heated up and even took home some awards including second place overall at the inaugural CoSIDA 5K in Marco Island, Fla. and age group awards at both the Granville Five-Miler and the Fredericktown 5K ON THE SAME DAY! I racked up 77 straight days with at least a 5K and boy was I feeling on top of the running world.

Then, the wheels began to fall off. I started having all kinds of issues with my legs. What started out at first as severe shin splints got so bad that I went to see Dr. Bright, who specializes in runner's injuries. I ended up getting an MRI on my right leg and found out that I nearly had a stress fracture. I backed off the training and instead did lots of stretching and therapy. Gradually the right leg got better, but then the left leg had issues all of its own with swelling and possible compartment syndrome-like symptoms.

All of these injuries forced me to really cut back on my training including taking nearly the entire month of August off. I walked a local four-mile race with my six-year-old daughter and then walked the Emerald City quarter marathon since I had signed up for both a long time before. It was frustrating to be relegated to that after becoming a runner, but I made the most of it and still found ways to enjoy the experiences.

Next up was the Presque Isle marathon in Erie, Pa. This was a last chance opportunity to get a BQ time for the 2012 Boston Marathon before the new qualifying times went into effect. It as also an inexpensive race to sign up for (only $40!) and one of my wife's college roommates lives there so we had housing. However, as the race drew closer, I was worried about making it once around the loop course let alone twice for the full marathon. When I got an e-mail saying I could switch to the half the week before the race, I decided that it made more sense to do that and just treat it as a training run to try to continue to get healthy for Columbus.

The Erie race went well and was definitely one that I want to do again and possibly take a shot at doing the full. I finished just two minutes off my PR in 1:36 something. However, I continued to have swelling and pain in my left leg afterwards and decided that I would need to be really careful the rest of the way heading towards the Columbus race. So, I primarily did the long runs on the weekends and spent the rest of the week resting, icing, and getting stim treatments from our athletic trainer, Brian Humphrey. (In fact, aside from my wife and kids who are my biggest supporters, Brian probably deserves a medal of his own for keeping me in the hunt.)

Well, that's the story of how I got to the starting line on October 16, 2011. Stay tuned for the recap of what transpired in the race. Gotta love a cliffhanger, right? :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It's Race Week

With the Columbus Marathon now just five days away, I've been reflecting a lot on the journey that I've been on over the past year ever since running in my first half marathon last October in Columbus.

Last year, I was a newbie. The Columbus half marathon was only the third race I had run in my newfound running career and the first time that I even attempted a run of more than 10 miles ever. Well, I started off strong (too strong in fact) and had to gut out the final three miles, but still finished in just over 1:45. I learned a lot in the process and knew that I wanted to come back and do it again.

Since then, I've been running pretty much non-stop with a great group of friends known as the Mount Vernon Running Buddies. We meet pretty much every day during the week for a 5K at 6 a.m. and then do our long runs together on the weekend. We had a large group run the Cap City Half Marathon in the spring (pictured below) and now five of us are slated to attempt the full marathon next Sunday.

As I reflect back on the past year, I think of how much I've appreciated and needed the support of my wife, Carla, and two daughters, Ashley and Kylie, to make even attempting my first marathon possible. They've put up with all the times that I had to squeeze in a run or headed to a race on the weekend. They've had to hurdle my piles of sweaty running clothes in the basement and put up with my moods if I didn't get a run in due to the weather, a busy schedule, or lately nagging injuries. I've also had the privilege of doing races with all of them in the time leading up to this race.

Besides my family, my four running buddies who are joining me in the race on Sunday have been great sources of encouragement and inspiration. First, there's Teri Pokosh. Teri is an amazing runner! She is in her mid-50's, but you would never know it by how fast she runs. This will be her seventh Columbus Marathon and her 13th full overall. She's qualified for and run Boston and is quite the motivator now as she has used her experience to keep our group on task in our training since the rest of us are first-time marathoners. She's also an inspiration as she has done all of this training through a lot of pain with two bad knees. I'm excited for her to cross the finish line.

Next up is Donald Cobb. Donald and I graduated from Mount Vernon Nazarene University together in 1994 and it's been fun to run and compete with him over the past year in a number of races. We did the Columbus half together last year. Well, we started together, but the two Red Bulls that he had pre-race spurred him on to an even faster second 10k after I convinced him to take off, leave me, and finish strong. All things being equal, it would be great to run the entire race with him on Sunday and cross the finish line together.

Next is Chad Sims. Chad is another friend since college days and he has improved tremendously over the past year. Last fall, he finished his first half marathon with less than 70 miles of training under his belt and he did it in just a few seconds over two hours. This year, he's got 700 miles or so under his belt and is going to do a great job in the race. He was hesitant to sign up to do this, but he's going to be so glad that he did once it's over. I still think even better running days are ahead for him as his times keep on dropping.

The final member of our group of five is George Hartz. George was actually the first one of us to sign up and commit to doing the full when he registered way back on January 1st. He has trained faithfully through all the weather and has done a lot of the longer runs totally on his own. He's also put up with a lot of good-natured kidding because someone in every group has to be that guy - the one who gets picked on or who things just always seem to happen to. If it's possible to get left off race results or be the only one to get the wrong color of shirt, yep, George is your guy. Well, George is going to do great on race day and I know when he crosses the finish line that he'll be glad he did this. I’m excited for his wife and kids to be there to cheer him on, too.

I have numerous other friends running either the full or half and can’t wait to hear all about their amazing race day experiences as well. I’m still holding out hope that we can get Todd Hawkins, another Mount Vernon native, to don the Mount Vernon Running Buddies neon green ‘cause he’s going to cruise through the course in a sub 2:45. We usually see Todd for about 20 seconds on our 6 a.m. runs. I’m also looking forward to seeing my uncle, Randy Rucker, cross the finish line for the sixth time at Columbus after deciding to train for the race again after several years off as a result of reading my blog. I won’t be shocked at all if he qualifies for Boston, either, after just missing previously by a matter of seconds.

To all my friends participating in the race on Sunday, here's some advice. No matter what happens on race day, do everything possible to enjoy yourself. Sure, aside from finishing, you want to set a goal for yourself from a time standpoint so that you will push yourself to do your best. But, make sure you take the time to soak up the atmosphere. Read the funny and inspiring signs you will see. Enjoy the music provided by the live bands. High five some kids along the route. Thank the volunteers at the water stops and other places along the route. And, most importantly, take the time to encourage other runners. You never know when you in turn are going to need just the slightest word to help you get through a tough spot in a race and you could be that person for someone else.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed connecting with the running community thanks to the Columbus Marathon allowing me to be one of their bloggers. Let’s have a blast next Sunday morning! We can all do this together!!!